The Old Wife’s Well has been on my to visit list for quite a time. The well is not the easiest to find situated on afforested woodland on the edge of moorland. High above Pickering, but only a few miles, it seems to be 100s of years away. A snapshot of an older tradition. The spring arises in a rather simple square well chamber which is fairly non-descript bar the engraving on the top which is most interesting. The carving reads:
This has been translated as ‘Well of the spirits’; Fonten – meaning spring and Nattie meaning spirit. Is this the Old Wife one wonders? Old Wife is found in a number of sites across Yorkshire: Old Wife’s Hill at Cundall, Old Wife’s Howe at Ravenscar, Old Wife’s Stones at Danby and Old Wife’s Neck which are standing stones on John Cross Rigg. Locally there is Wade’s causeway a long pavemented road which travels romantically across the desolate moorland. Wade was a local giant who is said to have built the causeway, which has been in the past said to be a Roman road, although opinion has changed over time. However, the wife in question is probably not a wife in the modern meaning but from the middle English word Wif which simply means ‘women’ which of course has survived in the term ‘midwife’ Thus the Old Wife simply means Old Women. Now this could refer to an old women who lived by the well, perhaps a local seer. Yet there is another explanation it could well remember the Cailleach, the old woman or hag, a deity of the Celtic population. Dr Anne Ross in her 1960 Pagan Celtic Britain described her as:
“At once mother, warrior, hag, virgin, conveyor of fertility, of strong sexual appetite which led to her seeking mates amongst mankind equally with the gods, giver of prosperity to the land, protectoress of the flocks and herds.”
Certainly the Old Wife’s Well is situated in an ancient landscape being close to a Mesolithic flint mine which was still active in the Bronze age and it is likely that the population used the spring. Of course one most sometimes be wary of wells with inscriptions suggesting ancient gods which may suggest classically aware landowners.
This notwithstanding, the site is powerfully evocative laying in an opening in the afforested woodland surrounded by low laying mist. It certainly is a much visited site by local people who connect with it spiritually and has within the last 30 years become a rag well.
The most common are traditional ribbons some of which are of cotton and should rot. They are attached to the trees and to the wooden enclosure of the well.
Some of the rags are clearly decaying and covered with algae and moss, suggesting they have been there for sometime.
There are also dream catchers
An evocative site hopefully it will not get too over-adorned with rags and objects and retains its mystery!
400TH POST! The sacred springs and holy wells of the St David’s Peninsula Part One (part one) by Julie Trier Source New Series No 4 Summer 1995
To introduce my commentary on the holy wells of St Davids in Pembrokeshire (one of the three counties presently constitionlly Dyfed), I would like to highlight a passage from Francis Jones’ now well-known guide, The Holy Wells of Wales:
“There are in the district twelve holy wells, seven of which are concentrated in the immediate vicinity of St Davids, as also are most of the cromlechau. It is probable that some of these wells were there in pre-Christian days. In St David’s time, a powerful pagan family lived there. Yet it was here in the heart of the pagan camp that the missionaries settled and it was here that Dewi St David) built his church, and twelve chapels were erected in the same district. It is possible that in this remote headland, with its rugged cairns looking westward over the waves towards the setting sun, lay the sacred mysteries of our ancient pagan stock.” (Jones 1992, 25-6).
Here is an evocative acknowledgement of the roots of our holy wells, inextricably linked with the ancient cultures. It has moved me to attempt a brief history of the early peoples of this region, suggesting their relationship with water sources in terms ‘sacred mysteries of their religious beliefs and customs (Jones’).
Some reference to contemporary evidence from other areas is used, to present this apparently ‘remote headland’ and its possible water cults within a broader historical, archaeological and religious context. This will lead into the Christian era when wells took on a new status and, in many cases, their present names. Most of the prescribed ‘twelve’ will be detailed along the way, although of those visited and recorded by Major Jones, a few have unfortunately all but disappeared.
In the beginning…
To live on the St David’s peninsula is to be ever aware of the presence of water, bounded as we are by the Irish Sea to the north, west, and south. Rainfall is plentiful, creating a landscape which flows with springs, streams, and a modest river, all microcosmic echoes of the last Ice Age melt-down that carved out the valleys and ‘cwms’ 12,000 years ago.
From about 8000 BC, as the climate warmed, the Mesolithic cave-dwellers of southern Pembrokeshire began to live in open settlements on the low-lying forested and marshy land beside the shores. Much of this land was later submerged beneath the sea (tree stumps are occasionally revealed during unusual surface-shifts at local beaches) as the water level finally rose, around 5500 BC (Miles 1978, 37; Worsley 1989, 13-14). Two thousand years later, the western sea-routes became established by Neolithic colonists originally from the Near East, who arrived in their skin-covered craft by way of Atlantic Europe, bringing with them their knowledge of farming (Bowen 1972, 26, 36). Their communities were probably sited close to the abundant natural springs, life-sustaining sources of water which would have been cherished for their practical uses; and doubtless reverenced as shrines. As they lived in close contact with the natural world, these people must have appreciated the earth’s creative, nurturing, and regenerative qualities, and felt awe at its destructive potential. Water issuing from unknown depths below the ground would suggest renewal and continuity of life after death It is natural, therefore, to find many of their burial chambers – erected to commemorate prominent or prosperous families – positioned near to sacred springs. It is interesting to note that a number of traditions exist linking both well and tomb with healing ceremonies (Jones 1992, 14-17,101). Dowser Guy Underwood believed these tombs also marked ‘blind springs of exceptional importance’. He considered such sites to be ‘the esoteric “centre” of the Old Religion as well as being the actual centre of its monuments’ (Underwood 1974, 92, 39). It has also been suggested that these cromlechs or dolmens, their huge earth mounds once concealing inner chambers of stone tripod and capstone, would have stood prominently upon the landscape, acting as territorial markers (Hills 1986, 50; John 1994, 13). Many wells were also used to mark boundaries (Bord 1985, 74; Jones 1992, 55-7). Two possible local examples of well, cromlech, and boundary complexes are worth noting here,
Ffynnon Penarthur (‘Penarthur Well’: SM 751265), ‘which stood at the end of the land of Arthur Li.e. the pen – ‘head’, or ‘end’ – of Arthur), was a boundary mark of a manor at St Davids’ (Jones 1992, 5). The ‘land of Arthur’ (probably just a local chieftain, although an Arthurian legend exists in this area: Jones & Jones 1982, 123), would appear to extend from the spring westwards for two miles, to the edge of the peninsula, where a cromlech named Coetan Arthur Arthur’s Quoit’) can be seen against the sky-line on St Davids Head. The easterly boundary at ‘Arthur’s End’ (as it was actually shown on some maps), marked by the well, would seem to be naturally formed by a stream which flows through marshy ground to join the River Alun as it meanders along the valley towards St Davids, half a mile away. It is possible that a second boundary, extending into fields as a footpath (on 25″ O.S. map, 1908), intersects the first at the well-site. This may be ‘the boundary of a manor at St Davids’. It is stated that this holy well ‘had an ancient cromlech nearby which was destroyed’ (Sharkey 1994, 51). Fifteen years ago, a visiting archaeologist told the then owner of Penarthur farm that a large stone in an adjacent field appeared to be the capstone of a cromlech. This stone had been removed and the present farmer did not know its whereabouts.
A recent inspection of the well-site revealed a large flat stone of the capstone type serving as a wayside foot-bridge, in the verge opposite the spring. Today there is nothing to see of the original well-structure except for a few moss-covered boulders around a modern concrete water-tank. A hollow indentation in a large boulder – ‘a common feature of holy wells’ – had been observed previously (Sharkey 1994, 51). A small hut next to the spring houses the machinery that pumps the water uphill to Penarthur farm, a quarter-mile distant. As with so many once-sacred springs, the identity of Ffynnon Penarthur has almost been effaced. However, it was once of undoubted importance, as three ornamented stones are believed to have stood around it, placed there in the early Christian era. One of these, the inscribed ‘Gurmarc’ stone, with its unusual Alpha and Omega symbols (Laws 1888, 76, 77; Dark 1992, 19, 20; James 1981 -illustration Pl. 5) had been serving as a farm gatepost in 1856. The other two were found in hedge banks. By 1886 all had been rescued and placed in St Davids cathedral (Arch. Camb. 1856, 50-1; ib. 1886, 43-5). Together with a further cross- marked stone from the Penarthur area, they are now to be seen in the new lapidarium in St Mary’s Hall, in St Davids. The three stones are of particular interest as the complex interlacing of their designs is specifically Irish, an influence which recurs constantly in this area.
At Naw Ffynnon (‘Nine Wells ‘), two miles east of St Davids (SM 788240), another example of the well/crornlech/boundary combination can be observed. Destroyed in the last century, the cromlech stood in a field above a now ivy-covered roadside well, one of the original nine (Jones 1992, 26). A few yards away, across the main road, and spanning a rushing stream, stands an old inscribed stone indicating the boundary between St Davids and Whitchurch parishes. As the name suggests, water is the predominating feature of this area. The English antiquarian Browne Willis, using material supplied by a local correspondent (James 1981, 182), reported: ‘not far from a Place called Llandridian (Druid’s Church) there are nine Wells within five or six paces of one another’. (Willis 1716, 66. Willis’ etymology is incorrect here. Tridian is a personal name, and doubtless recalls an otherwise completely forgotten saint: in the parish of St Nicholas, ten miles north of St Davids, there is a further Llandridian, and a well called Ffynnon Dridian -Wade-Evans 1910, 28-9.) And the gentleman historian Richard Fenton, who was born in St Davids, in his Historical Tour through Pembrokeshire written a century later, remarks: ‘Part of the road is constantly irrigated with water issuing out of that conflux of springs called ‘ ‘The Nine Wells’ ” (Fenton 1903, 76),
Although from these descriptions it would appear that all nine wells were almost amalgamated, at least four individual springs and wells are identifiable, scattered around a slightly wider area, and are known locally as members of the Nine Wells. The most accessible representative of the group stands, as mentioned, on the wide verge beside the road at the entrance to the track leading to the coast. Its stone structure is camouflaged with ivy, and its frontal retaining slab has been deeply indented by the constant friction of buckets, indicating its heavy use by the local community within living memory.
Close to this well is a modern dwelling, formerly a pump house which was built over one of the conflux of springs at the turn of the last century in order to take water to St Davids. In the 1930s the other springs in the immediate vicinity were incorporated into a large underground tank, to boost this supply. The colourful folklore of Nine Wells, as collected locally by Jones, indicates the interest in this site both in pagan and Christian times
By these wells stood a cromlech which was destroyed in the last century, and where a mound still exists. The tradition states – that in pagan times twelve maidens each under twelve years of age were burnt alive as a sacrifice on the stone altar there; that in Catholic times mass was celebrated at the wells, priests dipped their rosaries there, and water was carried thence to St David’s Cathedral to wash the sepulchre (the shrine of David?); that sick pilgrims came from Tregroes via Dwrhyd by Llwybir Pererindod (the ‘Pilgrims’ Path’ I (the path and the name are lost) to bathe at Nine Wells, and were then conveyed in a cart to Non’s Well where the cure was completed, and were finally carried to the Cathedral where they were blessed by a priest (Jones 1992, 26).
The ‘altar’ was evidently the cromlech. In Wales, cromlechs were regularly termed altar, allor, because of their suggestive shape. Their earthen mounds would possibly have eroded by Iron Age times, revealing the altar-shaped structures, which may then have been associated with druidic sacrificial rites – if not in actuality, then in the imaginations of later generations. Hence the legend at Nine Wells (and possibly the ‘Druid’s Church’ of Willis’ report). The ‘pilgrims’ path’ from Tregroes (Whitchurch) to Nine Wells made a slight detour from the main southern pilgrims’ route across Wales and the St Davids peninsula, which passed through Whitchurch and on directly westwards to the shrine of St David.
( Though no other information has survived locally to substantiate this, the reference to the ‘pilgrims’ path’, and the consecutive visiting of the various sacred sites of the St Davids parish culminating in a visit to the cathedral, suggests perhaps that it was once the custom to visit all the ‘twelve’ chapels and wells of the region in a single ’round’ a common enough practice at specifically sacred pilgrimage sites throughout the Celtic lands. It is known from other shrines in Wales (at Holyhead, Anglesey, the custom continued into the eighteenth century) and is still a regular feature of pilgrimage in Ireland – note from editor)
The Neolithic engineers who were apparently supported by the farming communities to construct the chambered tombs, were also responsible for the first stone circles. These were refined by the incoming Bronze Age or Beaker Folk, around 2000BC, who also set up isolated standing stones (megaliths, or menhirs). These, like the cromlechs, are often found close revered to springs, or: with their long axes pointing to water courses 1992, (Jones 15-18, 10, Arch. Camb., 1989, 21). A local example of such a well and stone circle connection (St Non’s) will be described in Part Two.
The arrangements of stones could be used in conjunction with the heavens as almanacs to predict auspicious moments in the farming year (Worsley 1987, 2, 3, 38-9). Did they also play a part in utilising or controlling currents within the earth, and emanations from the water below ground? Electrical engineer and dowser Bill Lewis found that underground streams radiate outward from the centre of stone circles, passing directly beneath the gaps between the stones. The movement of underground water creates a small static electric field, intensified where such streams cross, An electrical field produced in this way also concentrates neutron (or natural) radiation (Hitching 1976, 119, 121-3; Gordon 1989, 48, 52). This is verified and developed by Roger Coghill, researcher and author of Electropollurion, who suggests that ‘since the telectricall current produced by the underground movement of water forms a continually changing magnetic field around itself, it constitutes a chronic disturbance of the environment’. Through case studies, he concludes that subterranean aquifers, particularly where streams cross at different levels, may detrimentally affect the health of life on the surface (Coghill 1990, 117, 64).
However it is also interesting to note that electro-magnetic fields (E.M.Fs) are used in modern medicine, as they appear to stimulate body tissue to heal faster; but that, if experienced at the wrong frequency, as indicated above they can be damaging. The early scientists, probably recognising these energies through observation and divination, could then have judged them helpful or harmful. If this learned group – perhaps constituted as a priesthood – could be seen to manipulate the forces of nature, they would have been in a powerful position; but their authority would ultimately have rested upon the maintenance of the prosperity of the land and its people.
Fundamental to this would have been the preservation of a fresh water supply, and in particular, the springs. These not only afforded vital refreshment, but had ‘magical’ (? mineral) properties which might promote health; and their constant outpouring would have symbolised fecundity and well-being, which might have been regarded as the favours of a mother-goddess. Such a female deity was likely at that time to have embraced all aspects of existence, including death (her images were buried in tombs with the dead: Green 1993, 72-3) and, naturally, water, the ‘quickening’ element of life. In the Neolithic era specific water worship is less distinct in Britain than in other ancient civilisations, such as those of Egypt and Greece. However, Aubrey Burl in his The Stone Circles of the British Isles has remarked upon the above-noted connection between stone circles and water sources, suggesting ‘the importance of water in the ceremonies that took place in the rings’ (Bord 1985, 2-4). Rites of passage such as birth, betrothal or death, and rituals to induce healing and divination, may have been celebrated at these sanctuaries. Remnants of these appear to have persisted through the ages, as folk memories and customs may reflect (Jones 1992, 15-16, 101).
The worship of water deities became more apparent in the Bronze Age. As metallurgy flourished, cult objects and votive offerings were fashioned in the new metal. Although no evidence has been found to date from this era at spring-sites in Wales (possibly due to lack of excavation), the veneration of springs at that time appears to have been widespread, propitiatory gifts in bronze having been found in Denmark, Switzerland, France, and Italy (Jones 1992, 96). Unnamed supernatural powers associated with water and the sun were worshipped, as shown by artefacts depicting aquatic birds and sun-symbols (for example, ducks with sun-wheels) in Central Europe (Green 1993, 138, 147-8). At a late-Bronze Age settlement at Lichterfelde, Germany, well-offerings of rows of small vessels layered with grass may indicate a request for water in times of drought (Green 1993, 139). A well, 100 deep, containing wooden buckets, ropes, utensils and amber beads possibly a ritual deposit – was discovered at Wilsford near Stonehenge (Bord 1985, 4). This shaft dates from the time of the completion of Stonehenge, c. 1300 BC, when the ‘blue stones’ from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire were rearranged in the way they are seen today (Green 1993, 145; Atkinson 1959, 17; Worsley 1987, 6, 32-5). The route that was established between the famous ‘temple’ in Wiltshire and the source of the esteemed spotted dolerite of the Preselis was significant in the Bronze Age for another reason, which also concerns St Davids. Merchant-smiths from as far away as Greece and Minoan Crete followed this road all the way to the Wicklow mountains in Ireland, where they traded their bronze, amber, and jet for Irish gold; a metal with which they delighted to decorate jewellery, weapons, and objects for use in solar worship (Worsley 1987, 52, 86; Bowen 1972, 43, 46, 48-9; Glob 1973, 101, 113, 115, 123-5). St Davids, at the closest corner of Britain to Ireland, stood at the end of this land route (‘the Golden Way’) across Wales, Porth Mawr (Whitesands Beach) being the embarkation point for the traders’ sea crossing. It is possible that some of our holy wells close to the shore once received offerings in bronze adorned with ship symbols, tokens greatly favoured at that period as protective prayers for dangerous voyages by sea (Glob 1973, 148).
Part two with references next month
Being a noted aged town Stamford claims its fair share of ancient wells. A number of wells appear to share dedications with a nearby church and so it is unclear whether the names were obtained as a consequence of their proximity, all have been lost.. A map of the town by John Speed, 1611 features ‘S. Peter’s Well and S. Maryes Well. Butcher’ 1647 Survey and Antiquitie of the Towne of Stamford however is the main source who notes three wells: St. George’s Well, St. Clement’s Well and All Hallowes Well. There is a St. John’s Well associated with St. John’s Church.
More is noted of St. Thomas’s Well, of which Francis Peck in his 1727 History of Stanford repeats a story, originally told to him by his father, about Samuel Wallace, a crippled shoemaker of Stamford. Wallace was instructed on how to cure his sickness by a strange old man who mysteriously came and went on Whitsunday 1659, and who refused an offer of food, saying:
‘that he almost never drank anything but water, and that the water he drank was sometimes the water of St. Thomas’s well. That well, said my father, was the well you know in such a place. I heard him describe the place, but being then very young, can only remember it was somewhere without Stanford on the east, not far from the Uffington road. I have since enquired of several persons, but they can none of them tell of any such well’.
A church in Stamford was dedicated to St Thomas. There are springs found at TF 054 072, TF 054 072 and TF 058 071 along the footpath and disused Welland canal so one of these could be the likely contender.
Stamford’s Spa or Iron Well (TF 018 060) is a delightful and little known survival, so named because of its chalybeate waters. It was according to Thompson (1914) an open spring until 1864 when the Mayor of Stamford covered it with its present structure which is grade II listed. This is a circular stone onion shaped cupola about four feet high and sixteen feet round, which has on it the inscription ‘John Paradise Esquire Mayor 1864.’
Beeby Thompson’s 1914 Peculiarities of springs and wells of Northamptonshire notes that the spring was beneficial for skin diseases and eye problems and people used to fetch water to use in their houses, but today appears little regarded. Mrs Gutch and Mabel Peacock, Examples of printed folklore concerning Lincolnshire, Folklore Society, County Folklore Vol V, 1908 state:
“Tradition recounts that a religious house inhabited by pious women once stood near this holy well, and that its waters then had the power of restoring sight to the blind. It is still a wishing well. You wish, and drop a pin into it.”
It is curious that they call it a holy well so it maybe they are describing one of the former sites especially as it is called the Spa on old maps. Interestingly, Bath house can be found not far from the Iron Well with its name painted on the front wall. Built in 1923 it is Gothic building of two storeys with two pinnacles and central carved pinnacles and gothic glazed windows in chamfered reveals. Although now a private residence it apparently still retains its baths apparently, but I was unable to ascertain this. Incidentally there is another Bath house in Burleigh Park although this is strictly speaking in Northamptonshire and beyond this volume. Burleigh Park also boasted a chalybeate spring or Spa. Thomas Short’s 1734 Short The Natural Experimental, and Medicinal History of the Mineral Waters of Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire, only makes passing note of it stating that it was a ‘product of iron stone’ and Thompson (1914) found no one in the locale who could verify a location and maybe it is linked to the above.
Various references in the 14th century note a Sevenwells which is perhaps significant. It was granted to the nuns of St. Michael but details are not forthcoming where it was.
Many years ago a friend of mine claimed his mother had discovered the location of the Muswell and she had become a bit of an expert on it. I remember her claiming that it was in a cupboard which at the time I thought was odd although I did not challenge her and forgot about it until now. In truth there still appears to be some confusion over the titular well of this well-known, London area- Muswell The name of this well has been confused, the most obvious is the secular Mossy well, which has been interpreted as Moses Well or St. Mary’s Well. Harte in his 2008 English holy wells suggests that the site is synonymous with St. Mary’s Well at Willesden. However, John Norden’s Speculum Britanniae of 1593. He wrote:
‘at Muswell Hill, called also Pinnersnall Hill, there was a chapel sometime bearing the name of Our Lady of Muswell where now Alderman Rowe hath erected a proper house. The place taketh the name of the well and the hill, Muswell Hill, for there is on the hill a spring of fair water which is within the compass of the house. There was sometime an image of the Lady of Muswell, whereunto was a continual resort in the way of pilgrimage, growing as is fabulously reported in regard of a great cure which was performed by this water upon a certain King of Scots who being strangely diseased was by some divine intelligence advised to take the water of the well in England called Muswell, which after long scrutation and inquisition, this well was found and performed the cure…’
John Aubrey in his Miscellanies, 1696, states that:
‘the water of this well is drunk for some distemper still’.
Indeed it is probable that two wells are under discussion. Stanley Foord’s 1910 Springs, Streams and Spas of London records that:
“in regard of a great cure which was performed by this water, upon a king of Scots, who being strangely diseased, was by some devine intelligence, advised to take the water of a Well in England, called Muswell, which after long scrutation, and inquisition, this Well was found and performed the cure”.
The king believed to Robert the Bruce (the Bruces held land nearby) but Malcolm has also been mentioned, and the illness was thought to be leprosy. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells calls it St Lazarus’ Well, although he is the only source. The author adds that it was ‘situated behind the Alexandra Palace’. Today a private house (no 10 Muswell road) stands on the ‘presumed’ site halfway along the road. Indeed, Muswell road is located just west of Alexandra Park and the famous Alexandra Palace. However there
is also a neglected well in front of a house in Muswell Avenue which has been identified by
one website Earth Stars. Alternatively, another website, https://www.londonslostrivers.com/muswell-stream.html, states emphatically:
“The present day Muswell Road, N10 is the location of the “Mossy Well” where the well still exists but is capped beneath a private house.”
The Hornsey Historical society, https://hornseyhistorical.org.uk/pins-or-muswell-hill/ state:
“The well survived until 1898 and a plaque on No. 40 Muswell Road marks the spot.”
To put a plaque up suggests pretty much certainty and indeed the site does correspond to marks on the first series OS.
The confusion is probably explained as Curls in his 2010 Spas, Wells and pleasure gardens of London notes that there were two holy wells in the area see Tottenham. These were described as being in good preservation at the end of the nineteenth century according to T. K. Cromwell (1823) History and description of the Parish of Clerkenwell. One well was described as producing hard, pellucid and hard water, the other was like rainwater. It is stated that in the mid-1800s, contrary to Cromwell, the landowners of one had sealed one well, prompting a civil action to preserve access for local people. The local people won in the case of 1862 and the Alexander Park Company had to provide a pump. Yet by 1880s the pump had begun to cease to function and the wells were only supplied by surface waters which was polluted. Around this time it was lost, this would appear to be the same site as St Dunstan’s Well. In 2016 workers digging Muswell Hill Broadway revealed a circular 30m deep well, which English Heritage are planning to investigate. Its location is unlikely to be the titular site but it is not impossible
The Minster Wells: An Archaeological Evaluation of the Holy Wells of Minster Abbey, Isle of Sheppey, Kent – Brian Slade.
- The Abbess’s Well
The Abbess’s Well at Minster Abbey is so named because it supplied the water for St Sexburga’s palace. It is a timeless and sacred place, full of legend, symbolism and atmosphere. In 1991, I directed the award-winning excavations undertaken by the Sheppey Archaeological Society, of two wells associated with the former abbey. The Abbess’s Well produced proof positive of habitation on the site dating back to the very dawn of Britain’s history. The evidence includes pottery from the late Bronze Age (c. 1400-1000 B.C.) and Iron Age, to the Norman periods; with, in between, no less than ten varieties of Roman ware. Most remarkable of all, we uncovered more Anglo-Saxon imported Ipswich Ware (A.D. 650-850) than has been discovered in all the excavations at Kent’s cathedral city of Canterbury put together. Metal finds include seven Anglo-Saxon bronze dress pins, some with decorated heads, perhaps once worn by Sexburga’s nuns; and a delicate chain or chatelaine to which is attached a small pair of shears, equivalent in size to modern-day nail-scissors, which might have hung from some nun’s girdle. A cressett lamp-base (cressett, from the French, croix, a cross) from the 650 to 850 period was found, as were a silver sceatta coin, of a type issued for Egbert, archbishop of York, in currency between 732-4 and 766, and four Henry Ill silver coins (1216-1272).
Some of the most exciting finds were of glass. These include the broken remains of 7th-9th century natural green-blue Anglo-Saxon glass intentionally streaked with opaque red. Smooth free-blown glass and re-inflated high-relief ribbed glass blown in a mould is represented. Spanning the period from c. 500 A.D. to the 800s, some of the glass is from domestic jars and squat-jars. However, in the context of their being anciently broken around the holy well of St Sexburga’s convent, the most personal, poignant and mentally stimulating objects are the remains of glass beakers, pouch bottles, and dull natural green-blue ribbed palm cups. As the name implies, ‘palm cups’ do not have handles (nor, for the most part, do Anglo-Saxon beakers), their shape and size enabling them to be easily and comfortably cupped in the drinker’s palm. We may picture to ourselves Anglo-Saxon nuns, beakers and palm cups in their hands, sitting and standing around their abbess’s well on hot summer’s days, quietly sipping water freshly drawn from the well’s deliciously cool depths. Other nuns would be coming and going, filling glass pouch bottles either to keep about their person to drink from later as required, or to take to other nuns whose duties or state of health prevented them from coming to draw water for themselves. Inevitably, over the centuries every now and then one of the nuns would accidentally drop her beloved (and probably inherited) green-blue decoratively-ribbed glass palm cup, beaker or pouch bottle onto the ground around the well, where the delicate glass would break into many pieces which would gradually be trodden into the soft ground. And there they remained buried, hidden from sight for more than 1,000 years, until the Sheppey Archaeological Society came into being, dug them up, and had them examined, identified and dated by an expert at a museum.
The sheer density and richness of Anglo-Saxon finds unearthed in such a very small area around the Abbess’s Well reflect the wealth of royalty. The nunnery was founded more than 1,300 years ago by the widowed Anglo-Saxon queen Sexburga, to house her nuns of royal and high birth. An abrupt reduction in the pottery finds around the well from between c. 850 and 1,100 A.D. bears terrible witness to a period of diminished habitation, following documented Viking raids made on the Monasterium Sexburga, latter called Minster Abbey.
As an archaeologist and local historian well acquainted with Minster Abbey’s documented history, I had expected the Anglo-Saxon pottery evidence around the well to begin c. 660 A.D., when St Sexburga’s nunnery was founded. Instead, the team also unearthed Anglo-Saxon pottery from about 450 A.D., predating Monasterium Sexburga by some 200 years. This suggests that Sexburga introduced her nunnery into an existing and presumably pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon settlement. This provided the first evidence of such a scenario yet discovered. An English Heritage report based on their own inspection of the Abbess’s Well concluded that the stones forming the well- shaft are consistent with a 12th-century date. Yet, objects found down inside the Well date back to
3rd-century Roman occupation of the site. As there is no indigenous stone on the Isle of Sheppey, this suggests that c. 1130, when Archbishop William de Corbeuil shipped stone to Minster, he had the original wicker and timber-lined well-shaft replaced by the stone still to be seen in place there today.
The Abbess’s Well was found to contain a 400-year-old size-five woman’s shoe. Attached to the wooden sole was a raised iron ring designed to keep the shoe above the surface of unpaved streets, and thus raise the lady’s dress out of the mud. This type of footwear is called a pattern. Although iron rings from such shoes are often discovered, a complete shoe is a rarity. It is believed to have survived protected by the silt, preserved by being constantly waterlogged since it was deposited in the well.
With a powerful pump keeping the water at bay, at the very bottom of the 31 ‘-deep well two Roman coins were discovered; an Antoninianus of Victorianus (269-271 A.D.), and an Antoninianus of Gallienus (253-268 A.D.). This last bears an image of a stag on the reverse, possibly a symbol of the goddess Diana. (Diana is sometimes termed the goddess of sacred springs and wells, and it is interesting that Daly’s History of the Isle of Sheppey records a tradition that a temple at Minster was dedicated to Diana, which may have stood where
Minster Abbey was later built. In the second part of this article I will give details of the team’s investigation of what I have come to call ‘the Well of the Triple Goddess’ here at Minster, and of a three-headed female image discovered therein. It is interesting that the Romans called the goddess Diana Triformis -triformis meaning, having three forms – in other words, Diana was in some sense a ‘triple goddess’. ) From the archaeological evidence discovered around and within the Abbess’s Well, it seems possible that Sexburga inherited and blessed a pre-Christian well in the name of Christ, and adopted it as her own. (The Bible tells us that one of the marks of Divine favour towards the Chosen People was that ‘they should come into possession of wells which they had not digged’ – Deuteronomy VI, 11.)
Sexburga was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, and the sister of the more famous St Etheldreda. She was married to King Erconbert of Kent, and founded the royal convent of Minster. Upon Erconbert’s death in 664, she became abbess at Minster. Around 673 she moved to Ely, where she succeeded Etheldreda as abbess after the latter’s death in 679. Sexburga herself died c. 700, and was buried beside her sister at Ely. Her daughter St Ermengild, widow of King Wulfhere of Mercia, followed Sexburga first as abbess of Minster, and afterwards becoming the third royal abbess of Ely.(2)
According to Elizabeth Mills (the granddaughter of the Rev. William Branston, vicar of Minster, 1878-1901):
St. Sexburga, and her holy sisters, are traditionally said to have had a vast knowledge of healing waters, herbs and medicines, and that they used the waters from certain magical springs and wells for drinking and bathing the wounds of injured people, and sometimes even animals, thus effecting many outstanding cures among the sick and injured. (3)
In common with many other saints it is said that St Sexburga personally blessed all the wells she used. (4) Situated high on a hill overlooking the sea, the source of the water in Sexburga’s well is unknown, but it is thought to be fed by a spring deep beneath the Abbey grounds. Its supply has never been known to fail, even in the severest drought. In 1536 Henry VIll dissolved Minster Abbey, and over the following centuries the wells that once supplied the proud abbey with water were filled in. But such was its location (and possibly, too, the reverence and awe in which the people and Church held this particular water source) that it has remained a working well right up until the present day.
Even if one was totally to discount the recently discovered archaeological evidence that the Abbess’s Well existed during and before St Sexburga’s time, the 12th-century stone-lined well-shaft still implies that, at the time of writing, it has survived as a working well for over 850 years. Long after the Dissolution, the Abbess’s Well continued in the ownership of the church, the land being rented out for farming and market gardening. An ancient map shows the well amidst trees. The team discovered great numbers of plum stones in the Abbess’s Well, identified by Kew Gardens as ‘Prunus domestica, of the Rosaceae family’; indicating that the well once stood in a plum orchard. Sections of ancient brickwork (one with a piece of timber beam still mortared into it) were found in the well, together with broken peg-tiles, suggesting that at one time the well had a brick-built well-house over it. One might suggest that the plum-stones and other rubbish had fallen into the well after the well-house had collapsed or had been demolished, or perhaps even before the well-house was built. This is borne out by the fact that only worthless rubbish was found in the top few inches of the mud at the bottom of the well, after which (and apart from the pattern) the mud and silt was free of artefacts down to the level at which the medieval pins were discovered. Even deeper were the Roman coins, right at the very bottom of the well. Unlike so many of even the best-known holy wells in the British Isles, which for the most part are void of any contextual evidence of habitation and use in antiquity, the archaeological evidence unearthed within and around the Abbess’s Well is overwhelming. It is now arguably the best-authenticated monastic holy well on record in Great Britain, archaeologically speaking.
The first person to disturb the water of the Abbess’s Well was Ian White, of Sheerness. Indeed, because he was the only member of the archaeological team thin enough to squeeze his body through the bottleneck opening into the well, all the work down inside the well was carried out by Ian. Perhaps as a result,
in 1993 England’s news-media network – radio, television, newspapers, magazines – reported:
Sharon, wife of archaeologist Ian White, had suffered four miscarriages. Specialists told her they didn’t know what the problem was. Sharon began to lose faith and wondered if she would ever be able to have a baby. But almost exactly nine months after her husband finished working hours on end immersed up to his waist in water down a reputed healing well at Minster Abbey, Sharon gave birth to a beautiful healthy baby girl, Emily.
That was in 1991, and now the happy couple also have Hanna. (5) The land on which the Abbess’s Well is sited was sold to a builder in the 1930s, and the well was incorporated into the garden of a house called Abbot’s Gate, in Falcon Gardens.
Abbot’s Gate was purchased in 1994 by Leon and Brenda Stanford, who are perfect heritage-minded custodians, always ready and happy to show the well to people and to discuss its history (by appointment only). If any reader is genuinely interested in paying them a visit, please telephone them first, on xxxxx, mentioning my name and that of Source. A small timber shed has been built over the well, to provide protection and easy access to the well, which stands exactly as it has for centuries: clean, functional, and delivering crystal-clear fresh water, water given by the earth and blessed by history.
- Augustus A. Daly, The History of the Isle of Sheppey, Simkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. (London) 1904, p. 18.
- David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press 1992, pp. 161, 433-4.
- Elizabeth Mills, ‘The Forgotten Saint’. St. Wendreda of Erning, Newmarket. No details given. (This is a leaflet given away with plates depicting St Wendreda, sold at Newmarket.)
- This is still-current local tradition in Minster,
- Sheppey Gazette, 6 Oct. 1993, p. 1; cf. also, e.g., Jane Simon, ‘Fertility goddess gave me babies! Woman’s Own, Christmas edition 1993, pp. 52-3. Please note: Ian White worked down both the Abbess’ Well and the well of the goddess’ – one following the other – so that the ‘miracle baby’ story could be attributed to both or either. Naturally, the media preferred the ‘fertility goddess’ story. Christians will associate the ‘miracle’ with the Abbess’ Well; pagans (especially pagan feminist groups) with the ‘triple goddess’. (Unlike more purely archives-based research articles, in the context of this archaeologically-based article the primary sources are my own publications. If you wish to know more about the two holy wells of Minster Abbey, and the team’s other excavations there, full details, illustrations, photographs, etc., are contained in the following booklets:
The Abbess’s Well,
The Well of the Triple Goddess;
The Well of the Triple Goddess: What the Experts Say;
The Minster Miracles;
Minster Abbey: An Account of the Excavations.
The first three booklets were reviewed in Source 3: they are f2 each inclusive of p. & p. , obtainable from Brian Slade. If you mention Source and my article when ordering, and enclose a separate letter suggesting that the ‘Well of the Triple Goddess’ should be re-opened as a tourist attraction, as recommended by Dr Richard Morrice of English Heritage, Swale Borough Council, and our Archaeological Society, all five booklets will cost only E6, including p. & p.. Please make cheques and postal orders out to Brian Slade. The booklets are sold on a non-profit-making basis, to defray costs of research and production. It is my fond hope that readers of Source will send me further relevant information to assist my research regarding the Minster Abbey wells; and I take this opportunity to extend an invitation to readers to visit me if ever they are in this area. I can be contacted on xxxxx, evenings only, between 7 and 8.)
Note Brian sadly passed away I believe in the early 00s and the folding of the new series of Source meant that the other wells were not featured.
When I researched holy wells for holy wells and healing springs of Kent, I visited Sheerness in search of more information and contacted Mr and Mrs Stanford to visit the Abbey Well and they were more than happy to arrange a time for me to visit. I was taken to their garden where there was to what appeared, a simple wooden pine ‘shed’, within which the well was found. The well had been fitted with security lid and lights has been placed over and down the well shaft, by Mr Stanford.
This shed was becoming a sort of mini-museum with artefacts from the well. He informed me that after consultation with NRA and Southern water, the water had been analysed and was shown to contain essential minerals: manganese, phosphorus, silicon, zinc, copper and calcium, and was one of the purest in the county.
I was informed of a catalogue of cures which had been documented, which included Mr Stanford himself. He informed me that when he took over the property he walked with a stick, and was to undergo surgery, but after taking the water for a couple of weeks, he now walks unaided and never needing the operation. He also said that it was good for eye complaints and one such individual is a Mary Smith, whose serious eye infection made her a virtual recluse. Yet, despite using eye
lotions for two years with no effect, the complaint was cured the day after.
He stated that hundreds have come drink the water, some with fertility issues or, wanting to cure serious illnesses such as including cancer and blindness. Often he said they filled 25-litre water to take away with them some even going to mainland Europe with it. Of course he does not charge for the water. However, orders come for water throughout the world it would appear, from Africa to the US to Australia to send water too.
A second well was also excavated by Mr. Slade and his team and lies outside the old Abbey
Gatehouse, sadly still not still not marked and under concrete, called the Gatehouse Well or Well of the Triple Headed Goddess. The well was a public well and a number of similar discoveries
to those of St. Sexburga’s well, have been found in relation to this well, however overshadowing these is the controversial ‘Venus de Minster’ also called a triple headed goddess.
Interestingly, Slade suggests that Minster Abbey replaced a temple dedicated to Apollo and Diana and the image may be of her or equally of course St. Sexburga and her sisters and functioned as ancient pilgrim souvenir or a votive object. The image was associated with a strange ‘miracle’ concerning one the excavators, Mr. Ian White, being the only team member able to squeeze into the well he had direct contact with its water, and it was claimed that his wife became surprisingly pregnant, after four miscarriages and being told that she was unable to have children. When When a Dr Ian Godsland, a medical research scientist at Imperial College, heard about the Whites’ baby, he decided to send £150 towards the excavation of the well. He told the Daily Express:
“I really believe that the goddess may have played a part. Don’t ask me how it happened or for any explanations. I just believe now that the world can work in a different way to the one we scientists think we understand.”
Ian White told the Daily Express:
“Of course I can’t say it was the goddess for certain. No one can. But we both like to believe it.”
I never saw the Triple Goddess figure, as I never in the end went to see Brian and I have no idea where it is now. He had told me that there were at least three other cases similar to Mrs White’s one.
As Mr. White went down both wells the ‘miracle’ could be attributed to either site, but the media liked to connect it to this well. A modern ritual developed involving the touching a copy of the goddess image for luck, and then going to the Abbess’s well to drink its water.
Are either really holy wells?
What makes a holy well? Certainly there is a lot here to process – association with abbey ruins, highly mineralised water, cures and effigies but in a way no mention of this site itself as a holy well either by tradition of pilgrimage to it or association directly with saint historically recorded. What in way we have is a modern holy well based on an ancient mediaeval well. A well with some pedigree but none the less an abbey well or in the case of the other site a domestic well with no recorded sanctifying of the site. Brian Slade’s books are very interesting reads and he writes a lot which suggests that Sheerness was a very interesting place but its nearly all conjecture without any real evidence. But does it really matter?
The Abbey Well and Well of the Triple Goddess appear to have fallen again into obscurity and one cannot be sure whether people still come for the water. The later, really the gatehouse well still from what I can gather remains sealed! The site is marked on google maps as a tourist attraction but so little is on the internet about it, that I am sure modern miracle seekers are very puzzled by this marker which just appears to be in a non-descript street!
Last month we discussed Jafre’s holy well but there at least two other healing springs in the locality. The most peculiar is The Pou de Goiges or Goges or Well of Joys or Well of the witches. The well takes one of its names from the folklore that supernatural feminine beings live in the spring, hiding during the day and appearing at night dancing and screaming – which certainly seems eerie!
Indeed the well is rather eerie. It is enclosed in a concrete small house which was built in 1985 as a place for people to have a picnic and there is a picnic table outside. However, I do not feel this still happens as the site has a derelict and rather abused feel, parts are boarded up and debris and foliage is encroaching. Inside rather graffiti filled and it certainly does not appear to me a place for family picnics.
The spring itself, which was donated to the town as a public resource by the landowner. The spring arises in a stone and concrete lined deep pool, where people used to immerse themselves in and may still do so but by the look of the algae and debris its left to those elemental creatures I feel now. Not sure what joy could be received at the site today though!
Not far away is a better looked after site, the hot water well or ‘oil well’; a fairly recent establishment being opened by an Italian company called SISPA whilst they looked for oil in the 60s. When the company reached a depth of 1000 meters they hit hot, sulphurous water. This was at first covered but the pressure repeatedly shattered this cover. So the spout remained permanently open and soon word got around that the water was sulphurous and people came to use it identifying the water as being good for bone diseases such as osteoarthritis or decalcification.
Thus, the base of the drilling tower was thus turned into a small pool of five or six square meters. A decree of the Generalitat recognized the site as having mineral-medicinal potential signifying its role with some bone, rheumatic and arthritic pathologies.
On my visit I first noticed the smell of sulphur which lead me first to the spout and then to the orangey pool. It did not look very enticing and although no one was around it was clear that people did use it. Steps were inserted to one side and a small spent tea light was on the side.
Despite the availability of free mineral water it is clear that commercial enterprises have attempted to utilise it. A company once tried to use to cultivate of algae for medicinal purposes. They failed. However, the same company in 2005, that owns the land still plans to commercially exploit the place and build a spa with complementary facilities. Whether there will be any free access is unlikely and so this rather odd site may be lost to a generic spa!
De Jafre you are the crown, the joy and the consolation; your love caresses, the region as one; our faith kneels, with your grace and virtue.
The Joys to Our Lady of the Fountains of Jafre by Mn. Francesc Viver and with music by Salvador Dabau. 1945.
Many visit Catalonia in Spain and visit Barcelona, Girona and of course the wonderful coastland, but for those interested in healing, holy and in this case water used for ritual purposes will find Catalonia a very rewarding location. Sites range from thermal springs to ritual mikveh and in at least one holy well. To find this holy well, a journey inland is necessary to locate the Santuari de la Font Santa with its fountain ‘dels Horts de Mari’.
Why a holy well here?
Why in this fairly remote location should there be a shrine to Our Lady you may ask. Well unsurprisingly this was due to an apparition of the Virgin seen by a local person. This was a local farmer, Miquel Castelló, who in November 1460, received a warning that the water of the spring would become miraculous. Interestingly, Miquel Castelló written statement and a document collating the witness testimony of a number of people which was commissioned by the Bishop of Girona are preserved. The following account gives fuller details of it:
“on a Friday in the year 1460, when Miquel del mas Castelló was plowing his field in Bosc Gran, a young stranger appeared to him and told him that the water from the spring had healing properties. Faced with the farmer’s disbelief, who did not believe his words, the young man prophesied that a child would die in Jafre that very day. Miquel Castelló hadn’t finished plowing when he heard knocking. When he returned home he learned that Bernat Dolza’s son had just died. Terrified, he told the rector what had happened to him and he immediately exhorted the parishioners to have faith in the waters of that source.”
Very soon after this news spread and people begun to visit to spring from all over the country. Its waters were said to be good for eye disorders, especially it is said for blind people. However, it was also good for paralysis, fevers, sore throat and rheumatism. Such was the popularity of the site that on the 25th June 1461 there was a general assembly of the local households and councillors which was presided over in the parish church by the vicar general of the diocese. At the meeting it was decided that a chapel, decided to Our Lady, would be built by the spring and make pools and eye washing places although they appear to have been now lost. The spring was formally then adopted as a holy well. The waters could be spiteful though and it is said if sinful people washed there the water would stop!
The sanctuary complex and springhead.
This 15th century complex consists of unified building made of rough stone and angular ashlars with a central chapel with outbuildings with the different rooms and a large atrium to which a lowered arcade gives access. The chapel has a single nave with a barrel vaulted roof however the cambril is modern having been destroyed in the 1930s Civil War.
The font itself flows from a small barrel vaulted arched structure with the water flowing from a metal pipe into a natural basin of rock covered with moss. One accesses the spring by a small set of stone steps down to the water. On ledges flowers and small offerings were placed indicating still an active shrine. The whole structure is made of undressed stone and pieces of pottery. Above the spring in a niche is a figure of the Virgin Mary.
This figure replaced one lost during the Civil War and is made of plaster with. She has the child Jesus on her knees and holds in her right hand a representation of the spring head and the child carries in his right hand the ball of the world. This figure was blessed on November 11, 1939, after the cult’s restoration on the 8th of September.
A place of pilgrimage
When I visited it was quiet and desolate feeling, the chapel was locked but access was easily found to the spring. However, at key dates in the Catholic and local calendar the sanctuary is busy with processions and people taking the water. The year starts with a local mass of thanks giving for the water’s role in the local town’s cholera epidemic in 1884, on or around the January 20th. Understandably the main days of procession and pilgrimage are those associated with significant feast days of our Lady such as March 25th, Feast of the Virgin Mary of Gràcia when the water from the fountain is blessed. On the May 1 or first Sunday in May there is also a blessing of the fields and of course the whole month of May being Mary’s month it is generally a popular day of devotion. The Assumption of Mary in or around the 15th August and perhaps the most significant the 8th of September, the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary with the 8th of December being recognised for the feast of The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Another notable day is Corpus Christi when a flower carpet is laid within the chapel’s aisle. Today the site is really only of local importance its countrywide fame disappearing over the years, but it remains and important holy well in Catalonia and one well worth visiting.
In attempting to complete my work on holy wells and healing springs of Warwickshire I was brought to the small village of Wolvey in search of a curious site called Jacob’s Well. I discovered the site from a perusal of old O/S maps which clearly locate it upon land of Wolvey Hall. However, it appears to become simply W by early 20th century maps but disappears on recent ones. The name Jacob’s Well is interesting and may be a vulgarization of St. James, however considering its position more likely to be an estate romanticism. History, gazetteer, and directory, of Warwickshire, by Francis White Francis (1850) described it as:
“At the north end of the village is Jacob’s Well, which is very ancient, on the top of which is a stone figure representing Jacob; the water is said to be good for rheumatism.”
The VCH (1951)
“In the grounds, close to the road, is Jacob’s Well with the ruins of a masonry well-head piled over it. Among the stones is a carved reclining figure holding a pitcher which formed the outlet, and above it the date 1707.”
It all sounded very interesting but was it still visible? In 1997 the Warwickshire Register Review Data Tables, a Jonathan Lovie stated that it was a small pool with reclining river god which certainly whetted the appetite. However, local knowledge suggested that the site was inaccessible being on private land lost in dense rhododendrons. Only a trip there would find it out though.
Arriving in Wolvey I walked to where the old maps located the site and surprisingly found it very easily. Fortunately, the rhododendrons had been removed from around it and although it was sort on on private land it was easy to observed from the driveway. Remarkably, at the front of the well can still be found a large stone with the described reclining female figure holding a pitcher. Looking at it the reported fact that from the pitcher in this stone used to flow from this but this seems unlikely to be honest although one can see a small hole!
The date 1707 can be traced above the figure and a small stone coronet sits on top. It is claimed that the stone came from the older Wolvey house which is possibly although unless the family had an association with mermaids it seems unlikely. The well appears to be a 160 metre by 130 metre mound surrounded by dressed and undressed stone.
This is said to be the remains of a ruined well house but I feel that the well itself is probably buried beneath this mound. Sadly since 1997 the pool of water had gone and indeed it is difficult to suggest where it could have been. I also wonder whether the structure appears to be a conduit of sorts perhaps providing water for the house and made to look like a small folly. As such Jacob’s Well, having biblical connotations is one of the likely choices.
Jacob’s well may not be a true holy well, indeed barring its name there only its source for rheumatics which is significant, but it is certainly pretty unique!
The 12th century church of St Lawrence, Gumfreston (Pembrokeshire/Dyfed) lies off the road to Tenby to Sageston. In its churchyard three springs rise to form a stream that flows out through a ‘bridge’ in the churchyard wall. Although well-known and historically recorded in the past, Gumfreston Wells had become a local ‘secret’ that was in danger of being forgotten as the generations moved on.
It was in 1992 that my husband Trevor and I walked down the quiet lane to find the ancient church nestling in the woods and fields around it. It seemed an odd place to build a church, halfway down a hill, with no nearby houses. We knew nothing then, of course, about the history of Gumfreston. Walking through the churchyard gate was like walking into another time, into an almost awesome sense of peace, and for us, welcome. I really surprised myself by thinking ‘This is a place of healing’.
Sometimes people or places reach out to us, and so our journey with Gumfreston began. We had come from London to live in West Wales after Trevor had been made redundant a year before. Sp we had to,e tp bosoy the church and explore the churchyards. We found the wells, very overgrown with plant life, the stream choked with leaves and debris. Then for the first time we met someone once connected with the church, the then warden, Ken Handicott, who with a tiny but devoted congregation was struggling to keep the church going. It was Ken who first told us about the healing qualities of the wells, upon which he felt he had drawn personally. Sixteen years before, he had suffered a stroke and been partially paralysed on one side. With immense determination and often daily visits to the well, into which he dipped his paralysed arm, he regained his mobility, and went on to serve as a lay-reader and warden to Gumfreston. By this time the workload was heavy for him, and although we live in Manorbier over 5 miles away, we knew this was to be our church, and that we had the time and energy to give to this place we loved too.
That summer we were wading happily through the stream clearing the surplus greenery and nettles, discovering the beautiful stone structures of two of the wells in which the springs were rising, and the water trickled from another well was buried under natural debris. We began researching the history of the Gumfreston wells and discovered that they were listed in Holy Wells of Wales by Francis Jones (Cardiff 1954 p211) as pilgrimage healing wells. What had begun as a play’ was becoming more serious now. Trevor became warden (mainly because nobody else wanted the job!) and we began looking up references to Gumfreston in every local library, and talking to local people, especially the elderly. Tenby Museum had old prints that showed Gumfreston had been a quay on the River Ritec which had carried boats from Tenby to St Florence before the river estuary became silted up and the railway embankment was built.
In our small congregation we found a real sense of fellowship and purpose to maintain Gumfreston church and wells as a place of worship and a continuing ‘sanctuary’ for modern-day ‘pilgrims’/ Over the last couple of years we have become aware of the large numbers of visitors passing through Gumfreston many who return year after year, and are using the well water. We believe there have always been pilgrims coming here, and have begun to work for them. The church lost its keys years ago and is always open, so we invite people to come in and enjoy the peace of Gumfreston. We leave books in which visitors can write their thoughts and if they wish their prayers, which we join with our prayers on Sunday. There is usually a colourful display of the history of the Gumfreston Wells. The weather had been so damp recently, that I am currently making a new one which gives us a chance to add new information. We have no resident priests but are with the Rectorial Parish of Tenbyand fortunately receive encouragement and understanding from our Rector. I would like to mention here the unsung heroine of Gumfreston, Mrs Sheila Askew, whose devotion to the church and wells, hard work, and loving patience with us and the visitors has kept us going.
The History of Gumfreston Wells
The present history is based on a mixture of known and recorded facts, on-going surmise and research by fellow-enthusiasts at St Nicholas’ Church,Pennally, Brother Gildas on Caldey Island.and the interest and advice of David Austin, Head of Archaeology at Lampeter University College. He is in charge of the dig at Carew and as we are in his ‘catchment’ area within the new few years, he has offered to try and uncover the third well.
The three springs rising in such close proximity could have had a strong mystical significance for the early Celts who considered the number three to be connected with divinity. Springs and bodies of water were favourite places for worship, being associated with divine and healing powers.
At the time of the peregrini (‘pilgrims’), the travelling ‘saints’ of Celtic Christianity, a holy man or woman probably used the wells, maybe settling there. They may have been buried there and a small chapel built. The well water could have been consecrated and used in baptism. Gumfreston was then on the river estuary that faced Caldey Island, a spiritual centre and monastery, and on ancient routes that led from the ridgeway and St Florence by water and land. The whole of West Wales was a lively centre of Celtic Christianity, St Teilo being our local saint, born at Pennally and Gumfreston.
There is evidence of relic-keeping in our church and an ambulatory for ‘private processions’ which is most unusual in such a small church. Possibilities are coming to light of monastic settlement between the churches of Gumfreston, Pennally and Manorbier. Certainly in the Celtic Church organisation these churches would have been under the control of a ‘mother’ church, a much larger Christian centre.
When the Normans invaded Wales in the 11th century they changed both social and church structures but the holy sites and practices remained if firmly established. Our present church of St Lawrence would have replaced earlier buildings, and the original saint’s name,but the atmosphere of the holy sanctuary and peace remained for the pilgrims wo are recorded as still coming to the wells for healing of mind and body.
The Holy Wells of Wales (p.90) records visits to Gumfreston Wells on Easter Day to drop bent pins into the water. This was called ‘throwing Lent away’ The last record of this was in the 17th century before the rector of Gumfreston was removed by the Puritan authorities.
In the ‘Age of reason’ the well waters were scientifically analysed, first by Dr Davis, a physician to William IV, who found their medicinal qualities, rich in iron to be ‘as good as the wells of Tunbridge’ Visitors to Tenby Spa would ‘take the waters’ at Gumfreston or pay local children to walk out collect bottled water from the wells. In the same century Dr Golding Bird, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Professor of Therapeutics to Guy’s Hospital’ also reported on the waters (see below)
We intend to have the water analysed ourselves before we recommend it for drinking, although there are locals who drink them regularly . We are told that they make a good companion to whisky! Obviously there seem to be medicinal qualities in the water for our bodies, and there is a local tradition of using, one of the wells for eye ailments; but the account of the well dressing that follows is more concerned with the healing of our ‘souls’ and releasing our intuitive ‘creativity’
Well-dressing at Gumfreston
Why we did it
Gumfreston had been used in recent years as a setting for a floral display during the week of the Tenby Arts Festival. This year (1994), the team that did the display were busy elsewhere. I didn’t want to lose our participation in the Arts festival and was glad of the chance it gave us to be something for ourselves. I offered to do a small historical display on Wels holy wells and a iide yur of Gumfreston church and wells. Well dressing came into my mind as an artistic way of combining flowers and history that certainly attracted the festival committee – who weren’t sure what it was but it sounded different.!
All good practical reasons: but of course in hindsight I realise there was a much deeper person going on in my choice of well-dressing. For a while I had privately included the wells in all our Christian festivals by slipping quietly down to the watedz. Taking small tokens such as flowers, saying brief prayers and blessings, and ‘telling’ the wells what was being celebrated in the church. I wast sure why I was doing this but it felt ‘right’. At this point maybe I should explain that I am a Third Order Francisican and as such can get away with being somewhat ‘odd!’ but nevertheless my mind was needing to understand what was going on with all this intuitive activity. In researching what joly and healing wells had meant to generations before me. And would I hope to generations after me. I found the answers I needed for myself and which I could share with others.
How we did it
In my research, I had read of three instances of well-dressing in Wales (Jones pp 89, 91-2), so I knew it had been done; using garlands of mountain ash in one case (Priest’s well, Narbesh, Glamorgan), and in others at New Year, box (at Llanisen, Glamorgan), and mistletoe (at Diserth, Radnor).
Theoretically, I knew quite a bit about the more formalised art at Derbyshire well-dressing and toyed with the idea of using a similar technique on a small scale.
It was a quiet walk that it all began to take shape in my mind. This was Wales, not Derbyshire. I had been thinking of formal teaching, of constructing to a pre-planned end. Now I realised jay was mot to be the way at all. My whole approach became simpler. Researching for my historical display had made me realise that each well in Wales had its own history, its own associations with people and the uses it had been put to, so surely a well-dressing should reflect that.
I also realised that each well would have it own environment, of structure, flora, etc., and that flora available would vary with the reason of the well dressing. It seemed important to use what was growing around us, and to search for any plants of special significance.
This approach to well-dressing was becoming personal to the people involved, their personalities responding to the ‘personality’ of the wells. It was also going to involve getting in touch with the ‘natural’ around us.
This approach to well-dressing was becoming personal to the people involved, their personalities responding to the ‘personality’ of the wells. It was also going to involve getting in touch with the ‘natural’ around us.
So the Gumfreston workshops on well-dressing became a hands-on experience for those involved. The best place to ‘dress’ seemed to be the stone surrounds of the wells. In preparation I gathered large bunches of wild grass and barley, holly, laurel and other plants from the churchyard. There was an abundance of rosehips and blackberry sprays up the lane. Wild hydrangea and ferns and red sprays of berries, ivy and wild fuchsia. It’s amazing the variety of plant-life around us!
The day before the first workshop I made my own well-dressing so that I could get the feel of it. E could choose whether to work directly onto the wells, or use a container to place on them. I sat the total peace of Gumfreston in the autumn sun and would ferns around the edges of a wire frame I’d put together. A cross of wildflowers formed the centre of ‘dressing’ to account for me the holiness and healing qualities of the wells. Other plants filled the gaps. It’s said that ‘love covers a multiple of sins’: plants certainly cover a multiple of mistakes!
We had small groups, mainly local people, for the actual ;dressing’. Some had expected just to watch the ‘experts’. I had so little to offer them really, just the actual materials and the invitation to ‘respond’ to the wells and use their own creativity. And each person seemed to enjoy it so much! We were so fortunate with the weather that week, the wells were at their most charming. All the ‘dressings’ were different, but by the time we finished there was a sense of personal satisfaction and the relaxation that working intuitively rings. Gumfreston’s Harvest festival was on the following Sunday, so the wells were dressed for that.
We will be well-dressing again at Gumfreston (by popular request) on 15 April 1995, Easter Saturday. Anyone who would like to join in with us will be very welcome. We should be there all afternoon, from midday onwards, as we will have a lot to do in the church as well. In addition, the church and churchyard are always open and visitors are warmly welcomed. Easter Sunday morning service is at 10 am.
I feel that well-dressing is here to stay at Gumfreston. We still have a lot to learn and will always be happy to hear from anyone who has ideas and information to share.
Dr Golding Bird’s Report
“In consequence of the shallowness of the basin, this water is apt to vary in composition after heavy rains, from its undergoing dilution; this however applies nearly exclusively to the solid ingredients as the evolution of carbonic acid gas from the subjacent strata is so considerable that the water is, under all circumstances, saturated with the gas, so as to sparkle vividly in a glass, and undergo violent ebullution when laced on the air-pump and very slightly exhausted.
The water is remarkable for its singular purity, the quantity of the saline ingredients being exceedingly small. An imperial gallon contains but five grains of lime, part of which exists as carbonate, and is held in solution by an excess of carbonic acid. The exceeding minute quantity of sulphuric acid is remarkable, less being present than in the purist river water. The quantity of oxide of iron is about 2.4 grains of iron.
The Gumfreston water is, however, one of the purest hitherto noticed, and owes its medical properties to the iron, and the larges quantity of the carbonic acid it contains. This extreme freedom from saline ingredients, the presence of which constitutes the hardiness of water would render this water of great value to those patients who cannot bear the ordinary chalybeate water.
The Gumfreston water resembles that of Malvern in its purity, and of Tunbridge Wells in the quantity of iron it contains, exceeding all other chalybeate waters in Great Britain in the large quantity of Carbonic acid held in solution.
In cases of chlorosis, and other forms of deficiency of red blood in the system, this water would be invaluable.”
(Quoted in Samuel C. Hall and Anna M. Hall, The Book of South Wales, the Wye, and the Coast, first pub. London 1861 republished EP Pub Ltd 1977. Gumfreston is described pp 442-7, illustration of the well p446)